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Regarding Media

Two Badges, Two Ways of Coming Under Fire

June 28, 2002|TIM RUTTEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are icons and then there are icons.

Martha Stewart's reputation may or may not survive accusations of insider trading. But America's long cultural and literary romance with its firefighters seems unscathed by recent allegations that a forest service employee purposely set a Colorado wildfire and that some New York firefighters engaged in looting during recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site.

David Halberstam's new book, "Fire House," is a bestseller, and Joe McNally's heroically scaled photographic portraits of firefighters who responded to the emergency on Sept. 11 are a hit of the summer art season.

And although charges of police misconduct or corruption routinely trigger media and governmental investigations, allegations against firefighters are usually reported as aberrations.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 09, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 6 inches; 244 words Type of Material: Correction
Wambaugh book--In Southern California Living's Regarding Media column on June 28, the title of Joseph Wambaugh's latest book was incorrect. It is not "The Fire Lover: A True Story," but "Fire Lover: A True Story."

None of this surprises Joseph Wambaugh, the onetime LAPD detective sergeant turned bestselling writer.

In fact, the final sentence of his latest book, "The Fire Lover: A True Story," is "Everyone loves a fireman."

The different sentiments accorded police and firefighters "is something I've thought and written about since the beginning of my career," Wambaugh said. "In one of my first novels, 'The New Centurions,' an older cop tells a rookie, 'If you want love, join the fire department.' "

"The Fire Lover," Wambaugh's first book in six years, is the story of how former Glendale arson investigator and fire captain John Leonard Orr ultimately was unmasked as the most prolific American arsonist of the 20th century. Recreating the investigation into Orr's crimes renewed Wambaugh's fascination with the perceptual divide between police and firefighters.

"The book is full of allusions to differences," he said. "An important source of mine was one of John Orr's best friends, an investigator named Jim Allen, who'd worked with Orr on a lot of arson fires. Jim has the extra advantage of having been a sheriff's deputy early in his career, so he knows both sides of the coin.

" 'Cops don't think like firefighters,' " Allen told Wambaugh, " 'and firefighters don't think like cops.' He told me if you're going to understand an arson investigation for your book, you've got to understand this basic difference: Firefighters are obedient team players, who turn valves, pull levers, carry hoses and rescue things. Cops make quick decisions, jump in people's faces and sometimes even kill things."

That insight was reinforced as Wambaugh got to know members of the task force investigating Orr's case. They had been drawn from police and fire departments across Los Angeles County. As they began to realize that the serial arsonist "was somebody they knew personally, John Leonard Orr, the firefighters were profoundly sad and depressed," Wambaugh said. "One told me, 'I don't see any way we can win in this situation.' Gradually, that sadness became outrage and then, a burning determination to get the guy.

"The cops were totally different. A couple uttered the usual cliches about it being a sad situation, but I could see in their eyes that they were profoundly excited. All they could think of was, 'We'll probably get on Geraldo with this one.' "

To Wambaugh it is that hint of "darkness" that has made police officers a rich source for fiction, while memorable depictions of firefighters are rare.

"Firefighters get a tremendous payoff from their work that cops can never get--love. No cop can ever hope to get the kind of unconditional love that the public and the press give firefighters. Its value is beyond measure, and cops can forget about it."

The public's ambivalence about police officers, said Wambaugh, "is the reason there are so many more books about cops than there are about firefighters. How many books can you write about unconditional love? I mean, once you've written about your golden retriever, who wants to read about him again?"

Work in Progress

John Rechy is the author of 13 novels, including the classic "City of Night." His biography, "Outlaw: the Lives and Careers of John Rechy" by Charles Casillo, will be published in October. Rechy says:

"At the moment, I'm working on my new novel, 'The Naked Cowboy: His Life and Adventures.' Though it already has been purchased by Grove/Atlantic Press and scheduled for publication, I'll keep revising it right through the galley proof stage, as I always do. Structurally, the book is loosely modeled on Henry Fielding's 'Tom Jones' and has the same sort of picaresque narrative--impossible situations and coincidences that are both exuberant and funny. "It even has the subject and chapter headings that announce the action and allow my own interjections. For me, it has been one of the most entertaining books I've ever done.

"The spirit and energy possible in these types of stories allows you to twist things around in wonderful ways. The main character is Lyle Clemens, a young cowboy who ends up at the Academy Awards involved in an incredible scheme to kidnap a star. The story is set in Texas, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. There's a scene at the Playboy Mansion involving a peacock. "The columnist Liz Smith and Angelyne are characters, and the hymn 'Amazing Grace' is central to the book. Lyle becomes a revivalist and a star on the preaching circuit. Somehow, in this book I discovered that loose freedom every writer longs for."

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